Remember that song we used to play on repeat when we were kids? Or how about that epic family vacation circa 1999? Well, it might be worth thinking back to sentimental times if the winter chill has got you down. A study discovered thinking about nostalgic moments could literally make us feel warm and fuzzy, both inside and outHeartwarming memories: Nostalgia maintains physiological comfort. Zhou, X., Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., et al. Department of Psychology, Sun Yat-Sen University, Guangzhou, China. Emotion, 2012 Aug;12(4):678-84. doi: 10.1037/a0027236. Epub 2012 Mar 5..

The Study

Researchers conducted five separate studies to see if there was a connection between nostalgia — a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past — and physical warmth.

  • In the first study participants kept a journal for 30 days. Results showed they recorded more nostalgic thoughts on colder days.
  • In the next, volunteers were placed in either a cold, comfortable, or hot room, and were asked how nostalgic they felt. Those in the coldest room had recorded feeling the most nostalgic.
  • The third was conducted online, researchers recorded how warm participants felt when listening to music. Those who felt nostalgic from listening to music also felt warmer.
  • The fourth had volunteers were asked to think either nostalgic or normal thoughts and then guess how cold the room was. People who felt nostalgic perceived the room warmer than it really was.
  • The final study had participants thought either nostalgic or ordinary thoughts again, and then was asked to place their hands in ice water to see how long they could tolerate it. Scientists discovered (you guessed it!) those who recalled a nostalgic event kept their hand in the water for longer.
Can We Trust It?

It’s one thing to throw on a coat or stand by a fire to warm up. But it might be hard to believe nostalgia can also help people fight the cold. However, it’s difficult to argue when all five studies concluded that’s exactly what nostalgia can do. But like any study, the nostalgia results have their limitations. For one, the act of thinking nostalgically is subjective and probably can’t accurately be measured. And it’s not just nostalgia that can help combat the cold, either. Tolerating certain temperatures can also depend on metabolic rate, age, and how acclimatized people are to certain temperaturesInvolvement of basal metabolic rate in determination of type of cold tolerance. Maeda, T., Fukushima, T., Ishibashi, K., et al. Department of Hygiene and Preventive Medicine, Fukushima Medical University. Journal of Physiological Anthropology, 2007 May;26(3):415-8.. Information on the study participants is unknown, so it’s unclear if any of these additional factors could’ve affected the results. And how exactly does nostalgia warm people up? Study researchers deduced nostalgia acts like a personal heater because stimulating the mind with previous, positive thoughts — a psychological comfort — can also impact physiological comfort. Moreover, other research explains how nostalgia can combat lonelinessCounteracting loneliness: on the restorative function of nostalgia. Zhou, X., Sedikides, C., Wildschut, T., et al. Department of Psychology, Sun Yat-Sen University, Guangzhou, China. Psychological Science, 2008 Oct;19(10):1023-9.. And check this: There’s also a link between feeling lonely and feeling cold, so thinking nostalgic thoughts could potentially make us feel both less lonely and less cold. (Why aren’t we all thinking about that kickass sleep-away camp in third grade?)

Why It Matters

Nostalgia is much more than walking down memory lane. What’s so cool about taking a closer look at nostalgic thinking is the myriad ways it affects our mental and physical health. Nostalgia can fight off loneliness, and feeling more socially connected can lead to being healthier and living longerSocial relationships and health: a flashpoint for health policy. Umberson, D., Montez, J.K.University of Texas at Austin, Department of Sociology, Austin, TX. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 2010;51 Suppl:S54-66.Assessment of health, well-being and social connections: a survey of women living in Western Sydney. Griffiths, R., Horsfall, J., Moore, M., et al. South Western Sydney Centre for Applied Nursing Research, University of Western Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. International Journal of Nursing Practice, 2007 Feb;13(1):3-13.. Thinking warmly about the past can provide more meaning to our present lives, tooThe past makes the present meaningful: nostalgia as an existential resource. Routledge, C., Arndt, J., Wildschut, T., et al. Department of Psychology, North Dakota State University, Fargo, ND. Journal of Personal Sociology and Psychology, 2011 Sep;101(3):638-52. doi: 10.1037/a0024292.. Nostalgic thinking has even been shown to be more effective in provoking meaning than simply thinking about a recent positive experience or a desired one in the futureThe power of the past: nostalgia as a meaning-making resource. Routledge, C., Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., et al. Department of Psychology, North Dakota State University, Fargo, ND. Memory, 2012 Jul;20(5):452-60. Epub 2012 May 28.. Culturally, nostalgia is having a bit of a moment, thanks in part to the hipster movement of the early aughts (retro Ts, anyone?).It turns out nostalgia is also having some interesting psychosomatic effects on the way we think. Beat the blues with happy memories? It’s so old-fashioned it just might work.